On Nov. 12, 1981, seven years after being brutally raped in a suburban motel room, four years after she had temporarily lost her voice, and eight months after her brother had been killed in a mob style shoot-out, Connie Francis returned to the stage. She describes her comeback in the final scene of her new book, Who’s Sorry Now? (St. Martin’s Press, $14.95). “With outstretched arms,” writes Connie, “I circled the theater, embracing the audience and they me, ending seven agonizing years of self-doubt and heartbreak.”
But for Connie, whose plaintive songs chronicled teen love in the late ’50s, the real life ending was not so happy. In August 1983, two years after her triumphant comeback, Connie’s father, New Jersey roofer George Franconero, had her committed to a psychiatric hospital in Dallas, claiming that she was a danger to herself. Connie, 45, got out four days later, but in October Franconero had her committed again, this time to a mental institution in Florida. Once more Connie got herself released. Then one night in February, while at her home in Essex Falls, N.J., she decided to end her life. Alone in the master bedroom of her sprawling pink ranch house, Connie reached for a bottle of sleeping pills and swallowed a handful of tablets. The following morning a housekeeper found her lying across the bed, unconscious but alive. “I was really in bad shape until April of this year,” admits Connie. “It’s very unusual to get the kind of second chance I got. But a third chance is almost unheard of.”
In a sense Connie’s entire life has been a series of chances won and lost. As she treks through an 18-city tour to promote her book, the still-trim singer eagerly explains that she has put the past behind her. Today she is so self-assured that she can even laugh at Sorry’s bad reviews. “It’s like my records,” she says. “The critics never liked them but the public did.”
Born Concetta Franconero in Newark, N.J., she first performed at age 4, playing Anchors Aweigh on the accordion at a music recital. Fifteen years later the tiny brunette singer burst to stardom with the woeful hit, Who’s Sorry Now?
In the early ’60s Connie was playing the Copacabana and Carnegie Hall, earning $12,000 a week in club fees. Meanwhile her albums were spinning out of the stores. By the time she was 26, she had sold 42 million records, making her one of the top female recording artists of all time. “Ever the good Catholic girl,” she lived at home with her overly protective parents, who kept a constant vigil over their daughter’s virginity. Once Connie’s dad, who opposed her first romance with Bobby Darin, drove the singer out of his daughter’s rehearsal at gunpoint. “My personal life is a regret from A to Z,” Connie now says. “I realized I had allowed my father to exert too much influence over me.”
Her first two marriages lasted only a few months. She says she wed her first husband, a Las Vegas publicity agent, “because I wanted to have sex.” In 1971 she married a hairdresser. At the wedding Connie’s father stood up with a glass of champagne and toasted the newlyweds: “I hope this new guy turns out to be okay. We had one stiff in the family and that was enough.”
Connie’s third marriage in 1973 to businessman Joseph Garzilli was happy at first. But on Nov. 8, 1974 it turned sour along with everything else. That night, as Connie slept at the Howard Johnson’s motel in Westbury, N.Y. after a concert, a stranger broke into her second-floor room and raped her at knife point. The intruder was never caught. Connie sued the motel and won $1,475,000 in a settlement. After the incident she fell into a tailspin of depression and sexual frigidity. “My mind had needed desperately to escape to a place of serenity…any refuge at all from the unrelenting horror that had become my world,” writes Connie.
Joe Garzilli was powerless to help, and three years later he walked out on Connie for good. Connie became a recluse, rarely venturing outside her bedroom, where the television set was her constant companion. (During this period her parents cared for her adopted son, Joey, now 10.) With psychotherapy she started to improve, only to be struck by more problems in 1977. That year she underwent an operation to correct a postnasal drip, the result of previous cosmetic surgery. It ruined her voice and she had to undergo two more operations to repair the damage.
While she was recovering, her beloved brother, Georgie, was gunned down in front of his North Caldwell, N.J. home, the apparent target of a gangland hit because he was co-operating with federal officials investigating a kickback scheme.
Connie fought back by intensifying a one-woman anticrime crusade she had begun after the rape. She spent her entire court settlement from the Howard Johnson’s case on funding victims’ rights groups. She also kept up a frenetic schedule of speech-making and letter writing, even traveling to Washington, D.C. to lobby lawmakers. “I be came obsessive about violent crime,” she recalls. “Like any misguided fanatic, it’s the only thing I talked about.”
Deciding suddenly that the Northeast was crime-ridden, she fled to a $5,000-a-month rented house in Dallas, then to a condominium in Hallandale, Fla. Despite her frenzied activities, Connie admits, “I did succeed in alienating a ton of people and spending a fortune.” Connie believes that her father was justified in thinking she needed help. “But the way he went about it was cruel,” she says.
Father and daughter haven’t reconciled since the first time Franconero had Connie committed. “It was an excessive attachment,” she says of their once-close relationship. “The fact that it doesn’t exist today is far healthier.”
Neither of Connie’s parents have read Who’s Sorry Now? But if they do, they won’t find much to grumble about. Her first two marriages, her most recent emotional collapse and her suicide attempt are not even mentioned. Although she discusses the rape and her brother’s death, the tone of the book is as shmaltzy as a Connie Francis hit. A typical recollection: “Then in the middle of a busy intersection I stopped abruptly…and shouted, ‘I can sing! I can really sing!’ ”
As befits a star who believes she has gotten her act together, Connie is taking hers on the road. After a two-week engagement at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas at the end of December, she will perform at the Sun Dome near Phoenix. Dressed in a lavish gown, Connie will slink onstage in a burst of hot white light. “Who’s sorry now/ Whose heart is aching,” she will croon, as her sorrowful past is lost once again in a blur of cheering fans.